Every woman who cannot get pregnant wonders why. She wonders if there’s any way to fix the problem and who she can talk to about the profound loneliness she feels. Infertility affects women of all races, every socioeconomic situation, every culture and religion.
Most of the research being done on infertility in the United States, however, involves affluent white couples who agree to study participation as part of expensive fertility treatments. By volunteering their experiences to medical study, they’ve helped advance the understanding of infertility but that understanding doesn’t apply to all women. Black women, for example, are at least as likely to be infertile as white women but they are mostly left out of the infertility conversation.
When black women are overlooked for study, they are also overlooked by the emotional interventions that help white women cope with childlessness. The heartbreak of infertility is felt just as strongly by black women, who often see themselves as isolated, alone, and with no one to talk to. They even find discrimination in their doctors’ offices, making it difficult to describe the medical details, much less the emotional toll infertility takes on them.
Researchers from the University of Michigan have just published findings of a study they conducted solely on black women experiencing infertility. The interview-based study involved 50 African-American women ranging in age from 21 to 52 and from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Most of them were married, many were full-time workers with college degrees.
All of them experienced infertility at one point in life; the medical definition of infertile is the inability to conceive after 12 months of regular, unprotected intercourse. The women experienced infertility for lengths of time ranging from one to 19 years.
Interview questions touched on infertility and relationships with relatives, friends, and the medical community:
- 32% felt the stereotypical ideal of womanhood includes motherhood. Some did not feel like complete women or described themselves as failures due to their inability to bear a child.
- Deep religious convictions left some feeling shame, as they believed God made woman to bear children but they could not.
- Almost all of them suffered in silence, not even discussing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with friends or relatives who knew of their ordeal.
- Most felt their husbands and partners weren’t as deeply impacted emotionally as they were although these men were not included in the study.
- Some women refused to discuss their infertility because no one they knew would understand or be able to fix their infertility; this silence was expressed most often in women experiencing secondary infertility (the inability to conceive again after having one or more children).
- Cultural expectations of black women as strong and self-reliant kept some from discussing infertility. Others kept silent because of the bond of privacy felt in their communities.
- 26% reported discriminatory conversations with the medical community, with medical personnel expressing assumptions about sexual promiscuity and inability to afford fertility treatments and parenthood. High-income earners were as likely to experience this discrimination as low-income earners.
The inability to conceive a child challenges a black woman’s self-esteem; they see themselves as abnormal, in part because depictions of infertile women often feature well-to-do white women. The research team would like to see this study as a turning point, where black women are included in the conversation, the research, and the interventions as often as other women are.
- Ceballo, Rosa, Erin T. Graham, and Jamie Hart. "Silent and Infertile: An Intersectional Analysis of the Experiences of Socioeconomically Diverse African American Women With Infertility." Psychology of Women Quarterly (2015). Web. 17 June 2015.
- "Black women often cope with infertility alone." EurekAlert! University of Michigan and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 4 June 2015. Web. 17 June 2015.